Brooklyn, NY — When thousands of citizens opposed to “fracking” present their case to legislators in Albany this spring, chances are that some of them will carry posters of a controversial billboard created by New York City College of Technology (City Tech) graduate Svetlana (Lana) Akhmadieva.
Russian-born Akhmadieva, who graduated in June 2011 with a bachelor of technology degree in communication design, designed the now-famous anti-fracking billboard that was mounted in South Montrose, near the town of Dimock, PA, where water contamination linked to gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas has, for more than three years, made some families’ well water undrinkable.
Drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are used to extract natural gas trapped deep below the earth’s surface by pressurized injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals. This releases the gas — along with toxic substances, chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive materials that can contaminate air and local water.
Akhmadieva’s high-impact billboard, sponsored by Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, features red banners proclaiming, “Fix it! Three years of contaminated water,” and a photo of a pitcher full of greenish drinking water with sediment at the bottom that was drawn out of the well of one of the affected families. These elements are set against a background scroll listing some of the dozens of toxic chemicals that now contaminate the well.
Last August, a press conference was held in front of the billboard to publicize the ongoing water problem in Dimock but, three days after the billboard went up, Cabot and pro-fracking groups succeeded in forcing its removal, sparking the billboard company to declare it will no longer accept advertising from citizens involved with controversial issues. “I didn’t really know what was happening at the time,” says 25-year-old Akhmadieva of the response to her art, “but I did know it was making a lot of noise.” Asked if she wanted to remove her credit line from the billboard after the controversy erupted, she declined. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done,” she says.
Since then, the image has become ubiquitous, appearing in YouTube videos, on T-shirts and buttons, and at hearings of the New York State Legislature, U.S. Congress and New York City Council. The billboard image is displayed in Dimock — on a garage roof, so that low-flying planes and cars driving by can see its message. And, in television interviews, the homeowners often wear a tee shirts bearing Akhmadieva’s work.
Akhmadieva, a Sheepshead Bay resident, considers herself a supporter of environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, rather than a street activist, but believes it was very important for Dimock to put up the billboard. “Every day we drink clean water from our tap,” she asserts, “and we never think about it. Water is an essential part of our lives, and the situation in Dimock absolutely cannot be left like this. The people there were struggling and suffering with this problem and couldn’t get it fixed, so they decided to expose the situation.”
Akhmadieva was recruited for the project by City Tech Adjunct Assistant Professor Alice Zinnes and Professor Robert Holden. Zinnes, who owns a house in Pennsylvania in a possible target area for fracking, is involved in local, state and national anti-fracking efforts. “Lana was the first person I contacted,” says Zinnes. “I needed to find someone with strong software and design experience. She was fantastic to work with.”
“At the time I was looking for a job,” Akhmadieva explains, “but I took on this project for free. I decided to go ahead and risk it, because this was an environmental project. My senior project at City Tech also had an environmental theme: I designed packaging for organic products.”
Currently, Akhmadieva is a graphic designer for MNS, a large Manhattan-based real estate brokerage, for which she develops company branding and marketing materials. “I always was interested in art,” she says. “While I was in high school in my home city of Naberejny Chelny, I went to four years of art school. When I came to the U.S. in 2005, I thought, ‘I didn’t spend that time for nothing.’ I chose a graphic design and illustration major at Kingsborough Community College, then decided to continue at City Tech, because it could offer me the major I was interested in and at the same time was affordable.”
As the situation in Dimock worsens, with Cabot refusing to pay for a pipeline to bring in clean drinking water, the state allowing the company to stop delivering clean water to families who are suing, and the Environmental Protection Agency refraining from declaring water undrinkable even though it contains elevated levels of chemical contaminants, Akhmadieva’s billboard has become a potent, and possibly permanent, symbol of the struggle against fracking.
New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 16,000 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs.